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Ex-911 director sues county

Cook claims age discrimination played role in firing

YOUNGSTOWN — Trumbull County’s three commissioners are named individually in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the former county 911 director who claims he was let go because of age discrimination.

An attorney for Ernest Cook, 70, filed the civil rights lawsuit Jan. 13 in U.S. Northern Ohio District Court. The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $150,000, including back pay, fringe benefits, and compensatory and punitive damages.

Cook was promoted to chief deputy in Trumbull County in 2000 and then was appointed 911 director in 2010. He retired as chief deputy in 2015 when he was hired full time as 911 director.

A week before his removal, Cook, who was 69 at the time, pleaded no contest in Trumbull County Eastern District Court to misdemeanor charges of loss of physical control under the influence and failure to report a July 2018 accident. The case resulted from Cook driving a car that collided with a teen on a skateboard.

The lawsuit, in its statement of facts, claims in November 2020, Republican Niki Frenchko was elected commissioner after running on a platform of “getting rid of the good old boys.” This was substantiated by Frenchko’s social media, “which resulted in her decision to terminate at least five senior county employees,” the lawsuit states.

Frenchko had told an area media outlet that Cook’s claim in the lawsuit is not accurate.

The lawsuit did not name the five senior county employees.

According to the lawsuit, in January 2021, during the second board meeting attended by Frenchko, she and Democrat Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa voted to fire Cook after a lengthy executive session. The third commissioner, Democrat Frank Fuda, who was not present for the vote, “apparently agreed telephonically to the bad-faith termination,” the lawsuit states.

Fuda, who said he had to leave the meeting for an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic that day, said he has no comment on the legal action.

“We will let the lawyers take care of those things,” Fuda said.

Cantalamessa said the county “understands the severity of the claims brought forth” by Cook.

“However, we feel we will be able to defend our decision in good faith and present evidence refuting the claims,” Cantalamessa said.

Cook’s lawsuit claims the defendants, which included the county as a whole, failed to pay Cook 12 weeks severance as well as to advise him of his right to a disciplinary hearing.

The lawsuit also states commissioners replaced Cook with “a significantly less qualified, less educated individual who is approximately 30 years younger.”

For the entire 15 plus years of his employment with Trumbull County, the lawsuit states, Cook had a “stellar work and attendance record and was never subjected to any counseling or discipline.”

In keeping with administrative requirements, the lawsuit states Cook had filed discrimination charges with both the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received on Sept. 30, 2021, his right-to-sue notice.

The lawsuit, which asks for a jury trial, was assigned to U.S. Judge Benita Pearson of the Youngstown section of the Northern Ohio District Court.

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